‘Actions speak louder than words’. We should judge UK and EU leaders by what they do, not by what they say or by their looks, mannerisms or affiliations. Their handling of the covid-19 pandemic and public reactions have been mixed.
Some find Boris Johnson’s ebullient manner grating while others find it uplifting. We have the right to feel as we do and maybe cannot help ourselves, it might be instinct rather than choice, based on personality preferences or political prejudice, but we should try our best to judge all leaders by their actions since those affect us more than their attitudes.
Let’s take another example. London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has a look of earnest high-mindedness (annoying) but is his decision to limit tube trains and close construction sites correct? Fewer trains means more crowding for those who must travel to work; fewer key workers reduces the problem, so we can’t know the answer yet.
Those who cannot work from home must still feed themselves and their families but not all will get the aid they need to see them through the isolation period, especially the self-employed. How long will the shutdown last and is it too late to help or to matter as an Oxford University study suggests? We may have had the virus without knowing and now be immune. Or not; Imperial College suggests the opposite and its study triggered the Government’s hardened response. It’s interesting to note that the same team predicted disasters from BSE and Foot & Mouth, the latter causing thousands of non-infected cattle to be killed and burnt; other teams criticised the modelling used then and are doing so again. There is an attempt to balance saving lives with saving the economy, which may also save lives.
The dangers of over- or under-reacting to the pandemic cannot be known until we have more data; thousands or millions of test kits are coming soon; the results may tell us more. Meanwhile governments are guided by experts and by popular (populist?) pressure but the ‘experts’ disagree among themselves. The UK’s Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientist have knowledge and experience of disease control: Professor Whitty has spent decades researching Ebola, AIDS and even the plague; Sir Patrick Vallance is a clinical pharmacologist; both advised Johnson not to respond too harshly too soon. The response in Europe has varied from Sweden (no school closures) to Italy (roadblocks) with the UK now broadly in line with the average and taking a lead in its economic response. Critics like Khan say it’s all too little, too late. Some Asian nations were better prepared having experienced SARS, MERS and other pandemics that mostly affected just their continent (possibly their citizens are culturally more compliant to measures taken to control and trace their activities).
The Prime Minister was always flanked by his advisors in his initial addresses to the nation. This made sense in showing he was not winging it but also had the unfortunate effect of contrasting his persona with the gravitas showed by his young Chancellor, Rishi Sunak. Boris has changed his tone from “we’ll get it done” optimism to a solemness that doesn’t fit him so well. His two-handed, thrusting-embrace and other strong gestures at the lectern have gone (perhaps it’s just the effect of having caught the virus himself). Again, we should judge the results of his action rather than any change in his performance.
Public confidence in the Government and the Prime Minister has actually increased according to a recent poll but if the crisis lasts a while it is likely that Johnson’s premiership will not survive long after it, or even through it. The frustration people feel is likely to be directed at those in charge, especially the leader, whether fairly or not. Even Churchill lost his position despite being widely regarded as a successful war leader; voters wanted something new and different from what life was like before, after their trouble and sacrifice. That may happen again; if it does what might happen to the Brexit Transition? Will it be reversed? Will the EU itself survive?
The German economy might manage, it has committed a trillion euros to saving its industries and is ignoring the EU’s state-aid rules (wisely we think) but where will Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Portugal or Spain find such money? They need a Robin Hood, not another round of loans they can never repay—the Netherlands and Germany (the rich) are fighting Robin Legarde’s attempts to steal from their coffers to help the poor by introducing eurobonds. That amounts to bailouts for the Southern nations but the (fascist?) AfD now controls the German Government’s budget committee, where is monetary union leading?
Perhaps China will help, as they have already when the EU’s much vaunted ‘European values’ didn’t stretch to sharing face masks and ventilators with Italy.